What not to do while travelling abroad

This summer, think before backpacking

With the end of the semester in sight, summer travel plans are beginning to take shape. A year of desks and deadlines means that now is the time to break away and see the world.

Of those of us that can afford some rest and relaxation, some will opt for a road trip or a quiet summer at the lake. Others will pack 50 litre backpacks to head abroad where the global South awaits for an epic, supposedly “enlightened” escape. Visits to temples, ayahuasca retreats, and commercialized spiritual beads, however, do not make for a wise and worldly backpacker.

Despite a traveller’s education and Canada’s promises of a population acclimated to multiculturalism, cultural sensitivity and even simple human decency, these traits are too often left behind when Canadians depart on adventures to developing nations.

A look at three backpacker profiles will help make this case:


The guilt-free globetrotter

We begin with our favourite local party animals unleashed unto the world, the guilt-free globetrotter. At night, you can find them partying it up at the pub crawl or the booze cruise, while mornings are spent recovering from a wicked hangover – a sure sign they made the right travel choice. You can expect cheap drinks and relaxed liquor laws factored heavily into their destination decisions.

It is not the desire for a little fun which is cause for concern. Rather, one might take issue with the blatant disrespect for other cultures, general ignorance, and the long-term impact this type of travel has on local communities. Anyone who has spent time in party hostels knows this all too well.

In June 2015, four westerners, including two Canadians, were fined and sentenced to three days in jail after posing naked at Malaysia’s highest peak, an act considered to be of “disrespect to the sacred mountain.”

A few years ago, I remember finding a bar on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand packed with tourists excitedly watching their drunk friends fight one another in their personal version of “muay Thai style” over a prize bucket of beer. Their shrill voices were heard across town and continued into the night as the crowd spilled out into the streets.

Time and time again, backpackers complain that Thai people are not friendly or hospitable – not much of a surprise, considering the country is known for attracting such rowdy types.

Even in the spirit of fun, this absent-mindedness often comes across as offensive, trampling on local customs and religious beliefs.


The white saviour

The white savior is the “altruistic” traveller who devotes their vacation to a short-term volunteer project in the global South. From building houses for impoverished communities to “rescuing” turtles in animal sanctuaries, these “voluntourists” believe they can single-handedly save a place from its so-called unfortunate fate, despite little to no grasp of the language spoken or any other relevant skills. However, while they may enter into these projects with the best intentions, their actions remain severely misguided.

Few seem to realize that the several thousand dollars they pay would actually be better donated to the project itself and could even create new employment opportunities for locals. As well, tourists – even those with the proper skillset – may actually do more harm than good. A report by South African and British academics found short-term volunteers working in orphanages can be harmful for traumatized children, resulting in abandonment issues when the volunteers return home.

Outrage over an Instagram post by member of the “white saviour” trope Jossa Johnson in November 2017 is an all too telling case. Johnson posted a photo of her holding a little girl from Kibera, Kenya, with a caption that included, in part, “one of the happiest moment[s] in your life was probably when you met me and my friends.”

Johnson later went on to write how the child is likely destined to be an abused child bride who would “sell [her] body to someone else to earn money for your child,” concluding that dreaming was her only hope .

This sort of “hold-a-child, save-a-life” mentality must be addressed. Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole uses the term “white savior industrial complex” to describe how powerful individuals simplify complex issues in other countries so it feels like their minor efforts make a major difference. In so doing, they neglect their own complacency in the matter at hand.


The enlightened guru

Finally, there is the enlightened guru. This travel type is more difficult to recognize, especially with their two-dollar words and constant flow of facts. They have done their research on the country they visit, and might even identify the power imbalance between tourist and local.  Back home, they may be emerging scholars or self-proclaimed defenders of justice able to distinguish right from wrong. However, when confronted with ideas other than their own – like issues concerning religion, freedom, justice, or gender – they become tongue-tied, often resorting to immediate judgement, spending the rest of their trip surrounded by their own kind, rather than taking the opportunity to listen and learn.

Travelling without a critical awareness of the culture and history of the places you visit runs the risk of imposing harmful stereotypes onto locals, many of which are built on pre-existing notions of cultural superiority and racism. It’s important to remember that such ideas, coupled with global inequality, are founded in a history of colonialism that gave the West its upper-hand.

It is then our responsibility to educate ourselves before we travel, learn what is appropriate, and use the time abroad to reflect. These stereotypes exist, but there are also many backpackers that are challenged and transformed by their experiences.

When we travel, we have this unique opportunity to step outside of our social confines and reflect on our own culture and all the many areas where it falls short. Don’t miss this chance.